I should love movies about artificial intelligence. From an early age, I’ve found the questions about consciousness and our place in the world fascinating. And yet, every time one comes along I’m critical. I hated Transcendence like everyone else, and I hated CHAPPiE despite the cheerleading efforts of no less than William Gibson. Each time I can explain what it is in particular that doesn’t work for me, but I can finally explain in general why I’ve been so down on AI movies: I’ve been waiting for Ex Machina.
This isn’t to say that I knew Ex Machina was coming, and I was pre-judging all the rest in light of what I expected from it. But of all the times I’ve seen filmmakers try to really address the ideas raised by the prospect of strong AI, Alex Garland’s film is the one that finally gets it right. CHAPPiE can moulder in the dustbin of cinematic history; Ex Machina is among the best films of the year so far.
Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an up-and-coming programmer at a world-dominating search engine which is totally not Google, you guys. He wins a chance to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive genius who owns the company, at his remote estate (filmed at and around Norway’s Juvet Landscape Hotel). There he finds out that Nathan wants to show off what he’s been working on. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a humanoid android with what Nathan hopes is a viable strong artificial intelligence. And Caleb is here to test that question.
The first really satisfying moment as a fan of AI thought experiments is slightly after they trot out the Turing test. Alan Turing’s “imitation game” — yes, like the movie — expresses the idea that if you can’t tell from interacting with an intelligence whether it’s natural or artificial, then for all practical purposes they’re interchangeable. Usually this is set up with a text chat involving some humans and some putative AIs interacting with human testers; if an AI is routinely mistaken for human, we’d have to admit it’s doing something equivalent to what our brains do. Equivalent, but not equal; human brain-scanning helmets would not work on the computer because it’s implementing a similar pattern in a different medium.
But what we see in Ex Machina isn’t the Turing test, and it’s really satisfying that the movie itself knows it. This is something even more interesting: even though Caleb can see that Ava is obviously a machine, will he still feel like she’s a person, rather than an elaborate simulation of personhood? Is there really a “she” going on inside the algorithms?
That’s only the tip of the iceberg of questions Garland’s script raises. Even past the litany of AI philosophy, there’s a huge — and very much intentional — plotline about a man who thinks he can own and control a woman, and her efforts to break free and define herself on her own terms. And we must confront how easily our own biases can be turned against us to tell stories about what we want to be true rather than what is.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Garland has no trouble getting these ideas across so compellingly where other writers stumble. Between 28 Days Later and Sunshine and Never Let Me Go he has to be the smartest science fiction screenwriter working today. He even came as close as anyone could to finding something really worthwhile in the reboot of Dredd.
And in his first time as director, Garland’s eye proves just as sharp as his pen. He’ll be the first to dismiss the idea of director-as-author, but at the very least he has assembled a fantastic team. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is breathtaking, offering up one gorgeous, striking shot after another, and they’re not all variations on the same composition and lighting. The mood is backed perfectly by the score from Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow.
The cast is every bit as good as the crew. Gleeson balances between confidence, excitement, and a growing sense of dread as he realizes a fantastically wealthy recluse trying to create a whole new kind of person might not be completely mentally stable. Isaac disappears into his role, as usual, proving yet again the fantastic range that makes him one of the best actors of this generation. And ballerina Sonoya Mizuno is an inspired choice as Kyoko, Nathan’s all-but-mute assistant, who must communicate everything to us through her graceful body language.
But of course it’s Vikander that we’re all watching as she kicks off her own annus mirabilis, and she does not disappoint. Her affect is ever so slightly off, as is her gait. Everything is a little too precise, with the slightest hitch and halt adding that much more to her character without ever being too pronounced. Caleb is astonished to meet a machine that convinces him that it’s a person, but the audience will be amazed to see a woman that convinces them that she’s a robot.
Worth It: yes, absolutely
Bechdel Test: it’s an odd corner case, but I’m going to say yes.